Governance group frustrated by flawed law
There will be no writing awards handed out to the authors of House Bill 224, the controversial law Utah lawmakers enacted in 2018 that compelled Grand County to change its form of government.
Members of the Grand County Change in Form of Government Study Committee are not alone in their decidedly stringent criticism of the law. The same lawmakers who approved HB224 last year have been made aware of its myriad flaws and inconsistencies, and the Utah Association of Counties is working on a plan to revise the law in a way that simplifies the process.
The study committee could decide Friday, Oct. 25, to approve a recommendation to the Legislature that would summarize members’ concerns.
Based on comments made Oct. 18, HB224 puts too much power in the hands of Utah’s county attorneys, provides no clear direction on how much interaction should occur between sitting county councils and the study committee tasked with legislating them out of existence, and whether study committees have teeth or simply play an advisory role. The question of whether HB224 complies with the Utah Constitution has also been asked and there are key concerns regarding the lifespan of the committee.
Gavin Anderson, the attorney retained to draft the optional plan for the study committee, singled out a flow chart-type graphic that supposedly explains the process on how to change a county’s form of government that he said resembled a bowl of spaghetti.
“This is our Yelp review” of HB224, said study committee Chair Steve Stocks, a comment that brought a moment of levity to an otherwise serious discussion.
Committee members have accepted Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan’s finding that the optional plan was flawed on a handful of fronts, most notably her decision that the committee did not have the authority to draw up voting districts, saying that duty falls to a county’s elected board, whether it is a council or commission.
Sloan had additional concerns regarding election dates and other issues that the committee addressed last Friday, Oct. 18, but the issue of who has control over redistricting remains contentious and unanswered.
On the issue of election dates, voters won’t weigh in on the issue for 13 months while the committee’s work concludes in early March. Member Marcy Till questioned whether the committee would remain in effect or be forced to dissolve eight months ahead of the election.
“We have nobody to champion (our recommendations),” she said. In a nutshell, those recommendations are to have a five-member council that would legislate while a county manager would have executive authority. Per changes in state law, elections would be partisan, recalls would be significantly limited and there would be no term limits.
Regarding Till’s concerns, Anderson said further public outreach is not mandatory but is optional.
Said member Cricket Green, “It doesn’t dissolve until voters vote up or down.”
“Sloan is the final arbiter,” said Stocks. “Gavin’s advice no longer carries water.” He said Sloan is part of the existing government, and while neither Stocks nor anyone else questioned Sloan’s personal motives, they agreed that approving the final plan is the responsibility of the state’s county attorneys.
“That’s problematic,” said Till. “It puts a lot of power in county attorneys and maybe that’s how it should be since they’re elected … but they have the opportunity to flex that muscle.”
Member Jeramy Day agreed: “We don’t have the option to challenge her in court. We have the sword of Damocles hanging over our head. There are no checks and balances.”
Member Bob Greenberg added, “Lawsuits are expensive. Look at San Juan County,” which has huge legal bills for fighting – and losing – a series of court cases regarding gerrymandering.
While concerns over the autonomy of county attorneys took center stage at the meeting, there are other issues the committee will likely ask legislators to review. Proposed amendments to the “dense, complex and convoluted” legal process is “difficult to understand and hard to apply with confidence,” reads a proposed draft.
The committee could recommend simplifying the process by allowing only two tracks to change the form of government: by citizen petition or commission resolution. Also, the confusion that currently exists led to litigation in Grand County over who would control the process and that delayed the committee’s work, which made it difficult – and ultimately impossible following Sloan’s findings – to put the question before voters in 2019.
Even the rules for selecting members to an appointment council, which in turn named members to the study committee, are “unnecessarily complex,” said Anderson in his summary.
Other concerns mirror issues Sloan found in her review. Election deadlines are difficult to understand due to inconsistencies and “leave a county uncertain about when the committee must complete its work,” according to the summary.
The question of who forms voting districts and boundaries is another issue. HB224 gives study committees the right to form district seats and “all necessary implementing provisions,” which is language the committee depended upon when members chose two district seats, one urban and the other rural; and three seats to be at large. Sloan found the committee had no legal authority because HB224 does not specifically give study committees the power to create districts, only establish that there will be districts.
Interference from current council members has not been an evident problem, but there are questions on whether they should have any role in the process have been repeatedly discussed. Sloan believes the current council must approve districts and their boundaries.
The committee meets at noon Friday, Oct. 25, in the Grand County Council chambers at the courthouse.